That New Report On Incels Is A Cherry-picked, Misleading Mess
Incels are creepy, frequently offensive, and occasionally violent, but this is exceptionally poor and politicized research
How scared should you be of “incels”?
Very, if a new report (PDF) from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) is any indication. This is a very important report that we should all pay attention to, according to the alarmed media coverage it garnered in outlets like The Washington Post, The Hill, and Insider.
Incels actually came up a few Singal-Mindeds ago, in the context of my complaining about poor and credulous journalistic coverage of creepy and/or disfavored and/or trollish online communities like Kiwi Farms:
Same deal with coverage of “incels” — involuntary celibates, or men frustrated about their inability to find women who will have sex with them. A very small percentage of incels, most famously Elliot Rodger, engage in acts of violence or harassment. But mostly they are this sprawling sad-sack community of disaffected young men with a diversity of views on various subjects, including women. There are creepy men’s rights activist incels, but there are also more straightforwardly tragic ones, hobbled by physical or mental disabilities, who blame themselves rather than women for their shortcomings.
The coverage of this community was so bad! “Incel” came to be synonymous with “terrorist,” to the point where Ellen Pao, the former CEO of Reddit, inadvertently posted one of the best tweets of 2018, suggesting, to the extent I can understand it, that tech companies begin making lists of — and monitoring — their virgin staffers.
There have been only sporadic attempts only on the part of journalists — this Reply All episode and the podcast Incel by Naama Kates, which I haven’t listened to as much of as I’d like, are two examples — to treat the incel phenomenon as anything but another thing to get morally outraged about.
Thank you for the excellent timing, Center for Countering Digital Hate. The report is titled “The Incelosphere: Exposing pathways into incel communities and the harms they pose to women and children.” Very scary stuff from the CCDH’s “Quant Lab.”
The authors did take a highly quantitative approach. They didn’t really dig deeply into the online forums in question, let alone attempt to interview those who post to them. Rather, they scraped data from more than a million posts to these forums so they could evaluate how common certain words and phrases and themes were.
Look: A lot of incels are creepy. The creepiest and most disturbed incels do, very rarely, commit horrific acts of violence. It’s not a nonexistent threat. But there’s a lot of danger in the world, and people aren’t always good at appropriately evaluating and triaging risks, so I think there’s always a danger that some shiny new threat will attract more attention than it should. There’s some dispute over how many real-life killings and assaults can be fairly attributed to incels per se — we’ll get back to that. But right off the bat it’s worth noting that even a liberal estimate of this number — 100 — would be dwarfed, by almost an order of magnitude, by the number of murders in Chicago in 2021 alone, and is far lower than the number of Americans who succumb to Covid every day.
That said, there’s nothing inherently wrong with studying online venues where extremism flourishes, or at least isn’t stigmatized. It’s important, because some people do get radicalized in these forums, and/or some people who post there are already radicalized and/or are on the verge of committing a violent act. Some incel forums certainly qualify for this sort of study. But the particular analysis offered by the CCDH Quant Lab is so fuzzy, and bears so many marks of exaggeration, that it’s hard to know what to make of it.
I’m not going to give it a full fisking, but rather highlight some of the reasons I think we should be very skeptical. Then, at the end of the post — stay tuned! — I’ll bring in the thoughts of a journalist who knows a lot about incels and about the main forum featured here, Incels.is (they anonymize it, but you can just Google some of the quotes they include and see that’s what it is).
There’s a large warning sign very early on in this report. The authors note that “The Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) said in March 2022 that incels are a rising threat in the US.” Wow — incels are such a big problem that the Secret Service is singling them out? Scary, if true. But it isn’t true. The citation points to an NTAC case study about a horrible incident: “On November 2, 2018, a 40-year-old gunman opened fire inside Hot Yoga Tallahassee, a yoga studio in Tallahassee, FL, killing two women and injuring four more before committing suicide.”